Ravi Bopara turned in a superb all-round performance as Essex crushed Lancashire’s cricketers by seven wickets with 17 overs to spare in their Royal London One-Day Cup Group B match at Chelmsford, their last match before Wednesday’s visit by the Red Rose county to Blackpool to play Middlesex.
Bopara picked up four wickets for 31 runs as the visitors were restricted to 161 for nine after being put in, then he struck an unbeaten 101 from 98 balls - with three sixes and 13 fours - as Essex reached 163 for three in reply.
But it was the Essex pace attack that set up an unexpectedly easy triumph as they made the most of the overcast conditions which saw the ball seam and swing considerably early on, forcing the batsmen to concentrate on survival rather than free-scoring.
Lancashire were quickly aware that gathering runs would be far from easy - the second ball of the match reared off a length and had Ashwell Prince edging over slip to the boundary.
However, Reece Topley’s next delivery uprooted the South African’s off stump.
Karl Brown and Alviro Petersen survived several anxious moments while advancing the score to 44 in the 15th over - but the departure of the former for 21 when victim to Graham Napier was the start of a collapse that left the visitors 66 for six 11 overs later.
Bopara’s medium-pace put them on the slippery slope as he removed Paul Horton and Steven Croft in his first couple of overs, either side of which David Masters and Jesse Ryder dismissed Petersen and James Faulkner.
That Lancashire were to achieve a semblance of respectability was due to Alex Davies and Jordan Clark, who shared in a seventh-wicket partnership of 44, the best of the innings.
But that was to consume 12 overs and Lancashire found it so difficult to up the tempo that Davies’ uppish shot over short third man, when facing Topley, signalled the first boundary in 18 overs.
Topley gained his revenge by getting rid of Davies for a top score of 37 shortly after the return of Bopara, who had Clark well caught on the deep square leg boundary for 19.
Bopara went on to dismiss Kyle Jarvis to complete his four-wicket haul but not before the tail-ender had despatched Topley over long-on and into the River Can for six.
It was the evergreen Masters however, now in his 38th year, that proved the most economical. He did not take the field until just after the match started having been delayed by a traffic accident on the M25 - but he did not let that affect him as he returned figures of one for 20 in his 10 overs.
As the sun put in an appearance, Essex warmed to their task with a tempo and ease that their opponents had found elusive. Although Tom Westley fell to Jarvis with only 20 on the board, his departure served only to signal the arrival of Bopara to light up the stage with strokes of power and authority.
He was to reach his half-century from 48 balls with seven fours and a six and collected his eighth four immediately afterwards in bizarre circumstances - he found the cover-point boundary against Faulkner but in doing so broke his bat as all but the handle finished up at short midwicket.
Mark Pettini was content to play the supporting role to Bopara in a partnership that saw the pair post 98 in 19 overs before Prince took a stunning one-handed catch at deep mid-on to dismiss Pettini for 37 and provide Jarvis with his second wicket.
Nick Browne quickly followed Pettini back to the pavilion leaving Bopara to seal victory and take his tally of runs to 345 for twice out in his last four List A outings against Lancashire.Lancashire skipper Croft said: “The toss was vital, the wicket was a bit tricky and sticky early on and they had the bowlers to suit.
“We bowled with discipline throughout their innings which I was pleased about but, yes, the toss was vital.”